After reports that a group of Armenian POWs had been released by Azerbaijan, dozens gathered at Yerevan’s Erebuni airport expecting to see their relatives after months of captivity. But when the plane landed, it was empty.
The only passenger was the head of the Russian peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov.
‘Unfortunately, the return of the captives is delayed again’, Armenia’s Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan told Azatutyun, adding that it was ‘a gross-violation of the humanitarian process’.
Initial reports that a group of POWs held by Azerbaijan since November would be released were published on Thursday evening — after apparent confirmation by Armenian authorities that the release of the captives had been secured.
The topic of Armenian POWs was brought up by the Armenian Prime Minister on Wednesday in a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin had also had a phone conversation with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on Thursday — the details of the discussion have not been made public.
After the revelation that no POWs would be returning that day, the crowd that had gathered at Erebuni Airport departed for the Defence Ministry, where they joined a protest and blockade of the entrances to the Ministry of Defence organised by relatives of missing soldiers.
On the morning of 9 April, relatives of Armenian POWs also blockaded several roads in Armenia’s northwestern Shirak Province. ‘We have only one demand — the return of our relatives’, one of the blockaders told Sputnik Armenia.
Later that day, Rustam Muradov told the Armenian newspaper Hraparak, that the claims of a planned repatriation of Armenian POWs were ‘false and a provocation.
When asked why Armenian authorities would make such a claim he told the journalist to ‘ask them [Armenian officials]’.
‘They misled the population’, he said. ‘It was an ordinary working visit.’
The Armenian government claims that at least 188 POWs are still held by Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani authorities have disputed that number, claiming that they hold roughly 60 Armenian soldiers. They have also stated that they consider the soldiers not to be POWs, but rather terrorism suspects.
International rights experts and organisations, including Human Rights Watch, have called for the release of all Armenian POWs and other captives held by Azerbaijan, especially in light of the documented cases of ‘cruel and degrading treatment and torture’ that was suffered by those in Azerbaijani custody.
With additional reporting by Ani Avetisyan.